Lebanese cabinet meets after 40-day stalemate in victory for anti-Hezbollah camp

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt may have achieved his goals for now, but challenges remain

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri waves as he leaves after a lunch at the Elysee Palace as a part the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War One, in Paris, France, November 11, 2018.  REUTERS/Reinhard Krause/File Photo
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Lebanon's cabinet met on Saturday for the first time since a deadly shooting that sparked a power struggle between Hezbollah allies and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a veteran politician who managed to impose his will five weeks after the incident.

After two aides of junior Druze minister Saleh Al Gharib were killed in a shoot-out on June 30 in a pro-Jumblatt village, Qabr Shmoun, the dispute focused on how the killers should be tried.

Mr Al Gharib’s Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP), an ally of Hezbollah, one of the strongest regional backers of the Syrian regime, wanted the trial to go before a court specialised in state crimes, which could have paved the way for the prosecution of its rival, Mr Jumblatt.

Mr Jumblatt, one of the most vocal critics of Damascus, wanted the shooting incident to be handled by the regular judiciary.

The LDP finally backed down and the Druze leaders reconciled on Friday, allowing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to convene the cabinet without fearing an escalation of tensions. The investigation is now in the hands of the military court. Mr Hariri said that the government was committed to sticking with the 2019 budget, which was passed last month after weeks of negotiations.

As is often the case with Lebanese politics, the inter-Druze dispute involved their respective international backers. Hezbollah’s support for the LDP is a clear sign that its allies in Damascus are using Mr Jumblatt’s Druze rivals to “eliminate” him, said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Lebanon. Syria could achieve several goals by sidelining Mr Jumblatt, including punishing him for his criticisms or increasing its control on the small Druze community that stretches between Syria and Lebanon.

On Wednesday, the US embassy in Beirut took the unprecedented step of publicly criticising politicians who were exploiting the Qabr Shmoun shoot-out for political gain, accusing them of “inflaming tensions” in a Twitter post.

While the embassy did not name anyone, the tweet was seen as a clear jab at President Michel Aoun’s entourage including his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is accused of reopening old wounds between the Druze and the Christians. The American intervention was significant because the US plays an important role in backing Lebanese institutions, particularly the army, which has received more than $2.29 billion from America since 2005.

“Syria’s attempts to tilt the balance of power in Lebanon in their favour was unacceptable for the US,” said Mr Nader. Neither Mr Bassil nor Mr Aoun reacted officially to the tweet, but Mr Bassil was the only minister to not turn up at Saturday’s cabinet meeting.

Mr Jumblatt may have dodged a bullet but remains vulnerable to future attempts to destabilise him, said Mr Nader. “His opponents may try to attack him again and attempt a full-out confrontation by provoking another incident.”

Another factor that pushed politicians to resolve the issue is the economic crisis threatening Lebanon, one of the most indebted countries in the world. Moody’s downgraded Lebanon's rating in January, and should this happen again on August 26, when Standard & Poor’s is expected to re-evaluate its classification, local banks would have to recapitalise. This could cause serious difficulties considering the shortage of liquidity in the market, Mr Nader said.

Echoing a general feeling of exasperation among the Lebanese about recurring political stalemates, MP Nicolas Nahas, who once worked as director of Mr Jumblatt’s cement factory, told a local radio station on Saturday that “we have now returned to point zero. We have to begin thinking about the 2020 budget, which is of utmost importance to implement reforms.”

He said the Qabr Shmoun crisis was a waste of time, and warned that Lebanon was on the “brink of an abyss”.